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Judge rules Cortnee Brantley guilty by 'thinnest of legal threads'

Cortnee Brantley leaves court after a mistrial was declared in her trial last July. She was retried this January.

EDMUND D. FOUNTAIN | Times (2012)

Cortnee Brantley leaves court after a mistrial was declared in her trial last July. She was retried this January.

TAMPA — Three weeks ago, a federal jury said Cortnee Brantley committed a crime.

On Wednesday, U.S. District Judge James S. Moody Jr. accepted the verdict, finding it plausible "by the thinnest of legal threads."

Brantley, witness to the 2010 roadside killings of two Tampa police officers, never told authorities that her boyfriend — suspect Dontae Morris — was a felon with a loaded gun. She concealed the fact after the shootings while a police search for him was under way, the jury decided, by coordinating with Morris through phone calls and text messages, talking about hiding a car.

Now adjudicated guilty by Moody of the obscure offense "misprision of a felony," Brantley, 24, will be sentenced April 29. Federal law gives him the option of fining her, sending her to prison for up to three years, or both.

During a three-day trial last month, jurors saw a squad car's dashboard camera video that captured the fatal shootings of Tampa police Officers David Curtis and Jeffrey Kocab on June 29, 2010.

Officers had pulled over a Toyota Camry, driven by Brantley, that lacked a tag.

The passenger inside identified himself as Morris, who turned out to be wanted on a bad check warrant out of Jacksonville. The video showed the officers approaching and the man rising from the car. Shots exploded and the officers fell to the ground.

Morris ran. Brantley sped away.

Morris, now 27, was captured after the largest manhunt in the city's history and awaits trial.

The judge acknowledged that the case evoked strong emotions.

"A natural first reaction to the facts of this case is that a failure to report the murder of two police officers is wrong," Moody wrote. "It is outrageous. And the one who fails to report must be guilty of something. While that reaction is natural, it is not the law."

His 12-page order goes step by step through the evidence presented against Brantley, ultimately winding up at one "thread" he said might support the jury's guilty verdict.

In his discussion, he noted that misprision of a felony is rarely charged. In most cases, an act of concealment is obvious, he said. He gave these examples: Someone might get in trouble for giving a ride to a bank robber or hiding the loot.

Brantley's act of concealment was "far from obvious," he wrote.

He said there was no proof that she knew Morris had a gun. He discarded the government's argument that she had disturbed the crime scene by fleeing. He said it was a "stretch of the imagination" to conclude that a bloodhound could have tracked Morris by his scent in the car. He saw no evidence that Brantley fled to avoid the prospect of a bloodhound.

Moody delved into the text messages and phone calls traded between Morris and Brantley after the officers were shot.

Those exchanges alone did not constitute concealment, he said.

"If this were a civil case," he wrote, "the jury's verdict would be set aside and judgment granted for Brantley as a matter of law."

But because this was a criminal case, and a jury had reached a guilty verdict, he concluded that he should determine whether there was "any fact that could support the verdict," he wrote.

He speculated as to what the jury may have been thinking.

After Brantley fled to a friend's apartment, Moody noted, she backed her car into a parking space at the opposite end of the complex.

Jurors might have decided that she did so to conceal Morris' involvement in shootings, or perhaps to hide both herself and Morris. They might have interpreted text messages between the two as a sign that she knew it was important for both of them that she hide the car.

The judge included the abbreviated, misspelled text messages in his formal order.

Morris had told her that the car don't need 2 be park by the spot neither, and she had responded that it was way round corner. I nd to move it somewhere else tho.

Jurors, on an extended verdict form, had described that messaging as "coordinating." The law requires more than simple coordination. It requires an affirmative act of concealment.

But the jurors may have decided that the messages supported a hypothesis that Brantley intended to hide herself and Morris from law enforcement, and that she did so by hiding the car.

"If so," Moody wrote, "that would support the verdict of guilty."

Tampa police Chief Jane Castor said her department was pleased with the judge's decision.

"We felt all along that her actions in the deaths of Dave Curtis and Jeff Kocab were wrong and that she should be held accountable," Castor said. "We are pleased to see the justice system saw it the same."

The U.S. Attorney's Office declined to comment.

Brantley's defense attorney, Grady C. Irvin Jr., released a statement praising the judge's thorough explanation. It did not mention an appeal.

"We await April 29," Irvin wrote, "and will see where we go from there, if necessary."

The federal charge against Brantley began with a complaint dated July 2, 2010, three days after the officers were gunned down.

In October 2010, Moody dismissed the government's case, but his decision was reversed. A jury heard evidence in July but could not agree on a verdict. That led to January's retrial.

Patty Ryan can be reached at pryan@tampabay.com or (813) 226-3382.

Now, who was convicted?

Juries came and went. So did magistrate judges. Indictment yielded to superseding indictment. But one thing stayed the same in the 31 months it took to convict Cortnee Brantley.

They had her name wrong.

She was Cortnee in school, Cortnee on her driving record, Cortnee in each of three appearances at the Hillsborough County Jail and Cortnee in Hillsborough County court records. Cortnee, her attorney confirms.

But once the FBI erroneously charged "Courtnee," there was no turning back. The case styled United States of America vs. Courtnee Nicole Brantley plunged ahead with 252 docketed court motions, responses, hearing notices and other filings, nearly all wrong.

Her attorney got it right in subpoenas.

Eventually, a government spokesman said, someone will correct the record.

For now, the federal court electronic record system shows Cortnee Brantley accused of nothing at all.

Judge rules Cortnee Brantley guilty by 'thinnest of legal threads' 02/06/13 [Last modified: Wednesday, February 6, 2013 10:55pm]
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